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The Nats Have Cracked the Verlander-Cole Code, and the Mighty Astros Are Reeling

Washington heads home with a 2-0 lead after blowing Houston out of Minute Maid Park on Wednesday

World Series - Washington Nationals v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In World Series Game 2, a bullpen imploded, but it was not the Nationals’. A lineup produced a double-digit run total, but it was not the Astros’. In further defiance of pre-series predictions, the Nats beat the ’Stros 12-3, getting the underdogs two wins away from a world championship despite starting the series on the road against the AL’s top two starting pitchers.

For the first six innings, the game was a crisply played pitcher’s duel between Justin Verlander and Stephen Strasburg. Despite diametrically opposed leadoff plate appearances—a four-pitch walk for Verlander, and a three-pitch strikeout for Strasburg—the two seemed determined to match each other’s lines. The only big blemish on each pitcher’s record was a first-inning blow by the opposing team’s MVP-caliber third baseman: a two-run double by Anthony Rendon in the top of the first, and an answering two-run bomb by Alex Bregman in the bottom half. By the end of the sixth, Strasburg had thrown 114 pitches, worn down by Houston’s selective lineup much like Max Scherzer had been in Game 1.

Verlander, at 98 pitches, was deemed to have enough left to start the seventh, even though it would mean throwing to a catcher other than Robinson Chirinos for the first time all year. His reintroduction to Martín Maldonado, who did catch him last year, was a rude one: He gave up a game-winning homer, issued a walk, and was gone.

The decisive dinger came off the bat of Rendon Juan Soto Howie Kendrick Kurt Suzuki, of course, who had one hit in 28 postseason plate appearances when Wednesday began. He had two in Game 2 and also caught José Altuve trying to swipe third in the first inning, silencing anyone who had argued that Suzuki’s slump and weak arm would make Yan Gomes a better backstop for this series. “I can’t remember the last time I barreled a ball up like that,” Suzuki said after the game. “It felt great. It felt like months ago. Probably was months ago.” (Suzuki’s last “barrel” came on September 3.)

If one had to bet on one of these two teams to own the seventh inning on, it would not be the Nationals, but they broke it open after Verlander left. Reliever Ryan Pressly walked Trea Turner, the first hitter he faced, and even Adam Eaton’s sac bunt couldn’t quell the scoring to come. Rendon flied out, and with two outs, runners on second and third, and Juan Soto due up, A.J. Hinch issued an intentional walk for the first time since August 2018. Hinch, the first manager to get through a regular season without raising four fingers, never made an anti-IBB pledge: In late September, he said, “I’m not against it. I’m going to use it again.” He also said, “Can’t wait to walk my first guy in the postseason and everybody write about it,” and hey, here we are.

Hinch’s first free pass was fine: It gave Pressly the platoon advantage, allowed the Astros to skip Soto, and didn’t, for example, put the tying or go-ahead run on. And it worked, in a way: Howie Kendrick played right into and then out of the Astros’ hands by hitting a ground ball that was booted by Bregman (although it was scored a single). Then the conga line kept moving: an Asdrúbal Cabrera single, a wild pitch, and a dribbled Ryan Zimmerman single exacerbated by a Bregman throwing error. That made the score 8-2. The Nats scored six runs in the inning off of Verlander and Pressly even though Rendon made an out, the bat was taken out of Soto’s hands, and two of the next three batters grounded weakly hit balls (expected batting averages: .090 and .210, respectively) to a slick-fielding third baseman known for making clutch, sure-handed plays in the World Series.

The Nats tacked on three in the eighth off of Josh James and Héctor Rondón, and another in the ninth off of Chris Devenski, with Eaton and Michael A. Taylor taking James and Devenski deep. A Maldonado solo shot in the ninth produced the final score. Those extra runs allowed Nationals manager Dave Martinez to use the soft part of his pen without fear, asking an inning apiece of Fernando Rodney, Tanner Rainey, and Javy Guerra. Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle will be rested and ready to go behind Aníbal Sánchez in Game 3 on Friday, when Scherzer might also be available for an inning. Zack Greinke will go in Game 3 for the Astros, and while he’s the best hitter on the Astros’ staff, he’s not as fearsome a pitcher as the pair the Nats have vanquished.

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When Game 2 went final, Verlander became the first pitcher to lose his first five World Series decisions, and his lifetime Series ERA in six starts sits at 5.72. He’s pitched perfectly fine in the first two rounds of the playoffs and in much larger samples, compiling a combined 2.82 ERA in 149 2/3 innings in the ALDS and ALCS, but he’d surely love another crack at ending that Fall Classic streak. Dangerous as the Astros are, he’s not guaranteed to get one: If the Nats can take two out of three in D.C., they could end this series without seeing him again.

Thanks to timely hitting and the Astros’ untimely fielding mistakes, almost half of the Nationals’ baserunners this series have scored. Only a quarter of the Astros’ have, and they haven’t had as many baserunners to begin with. Although Martinez and Rendon credited Washington’s success to putting the ball in play, this isn’t a case of a contact team defeating an all-or-nothing one: The Astros are the higher-contact team, and they struck out only eight times in Game 2, while the Nationals struck out 10 times. Houston’s batted balls just haven’t found holes or sloppy fielders.

The Nats are not the better team, but they’re having the better series—and, for that matter, the better month. They’ve won 18 of their past 20 games, 10 of their 12 playoff games, and their past eight straight, outscoring the Astros, Cardinals, and Dodgers 50-17 over that span. It’s good to get hot at the right time.

At the plate, at least, the Astros have suffered the opposite experience. They’ve collectively slashed .216/.292/.370, giving them the worst October line of all but two playoff teams: the A’s, who played one game, and the Cardinals, whom the Nats swept away in the NLCS. The Cards were the worst-hitting team to make the playoffs, but the Astros were one of the best-hitting teams ever. One wouldn’t know it to watch them this month: They squeaked through the ALDS and ALCS even though the Rays and Yankees outhit them, and after batting .109 with runners in scoring position in the ALCS, they’re at .176 in this series. “It’s not as simple as saying, ‘Hey, man, get a hit with a runner in scoring position,’” Hinch said after the game. “These guys are getting pitches, we’re having some long at-bats. But we haven’t found the results.”

With Wednesday’s win, the Nats became the first team all season to hang losses on Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander in consecutive games, and the third to beat the Astros in back-to-back games started by that duo. The first two times the Astros dropped consecutive Cole and Verlander starts came on the road, so the Nats are the only team to do it all year in Houston’s house. It’s not as if the Nats’ starters were slouches—Scherzer-Strasburg is as close as the NL comes to a Cole-Verlander equivalent—but as challenges go, that’s pretty much pulling the sword from the stone. Any club that can pull off a feat that improbable deserves to take the trophy.

Of the 55 teams to take a 2-0 World Series lead, 44 have finished off their opponents, including 17 of the past 18. None of those 0-2 teams were as talented as the Astros, but even so, the Nats have swung the series odds strongly in their favor. As Joe Sheehan noted in his newsletter on Wednesday, the Nationals had a hard road to this point, although they sometimes made it look easy. If the Nats win this World Series, they will have beaten non-wild-card playoff opponents with a combined 304 regular-season wins, the highest hill any champion has climbed in October. They’re halfway to beating the best of those teams, and now they’re headed home.